One thing casual baseball fans do is overrate the importance of one player. In the NBA, you build a team around one superstar. If you have two, you can win 27 games in a row.
But it doesn't work that way in baseball. Look at last year's Tigers. They had the arguably the best pitcher in the game in Justin Verlander, the best hitter in the game in Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder, one of the 10 best hitters. They still won just 88 games in a weak division.
You can even overcome the loss of a great player, like the Cardinals did in 2011 when Adam Wainwright, the Cy Young runner-up in 2010, went down in spring training and they went on to win the World Series.
Still, that doesn't mean some players just seem more important than even their statistics or Wins Above Replacement would suggest. Which brings me to Jered Weaver.
The Angels are going to score runs. Even if Mike Trout regresses a bit and Josh Hamilton misses 50 games and Albert Pujols hits .271 with 26 home runs, they're going to score runs. The big questions for the Angels revolve around a revamped rotation that now includes Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson alonside Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Vargas and Blanton are what we call innings eaters, but Vargas has to show he can succeed away from Safeco Field and Blanton has a 4.79 ERA over the past three seasons in the National League. Hanson has had injury issues in recent seasons, and Wilson had minor surgery in the offseason to remove some bone chips from elbow. That's a lot of risk in slots No. 2 through No. 5, and there isn't much depth behind those guys other than Garrett Richards.
So, yes, Weaver is very important to the Angels, maybe the most important player in baseball for 2013.
Weaver had his own DL stint in 2012, missing three starts with a lower back sprain and spasms, and after averaging 224 innings per season from 2009 to 2011, threw just 188.2 last year -- although he still managed to go 20-5 and finish third in the Cy Young voting.
So they need him not just to remain healthy, but maybe tack on an extra 40 innings as well.
Weaver remains one of the most singular, fascinating pitchers of his generation, from his slingshot, across-the-body delivery to his ability to confound hitters with a fastball that rarely cracks 90 mph (he averaged 87.8 mph last season). Even though his strikeout rate has dipped from 26 percent in 2010 to 19 percent in 2012, he remained as good as ever, holding batters to a .214/.265/.340 battling line last year. He does this even though he pitches up in the zone. Here, check the location of his fastball against left-handed and right-handed batters in 2012:
Obviously, he paints that corner against lefties with artistry that would make Greg Maddux proud. Against righties, even though the pitches are often over the middle of the plate, he changes speeds and gets enough movement that hitters don't make solid contact.
That's one of the hallmarks of Weaver's success: Hitters don't get good wood against him. If you've read this blog much, you're probably familiar with the theory that pitchers don't have a lot of control over what happens once the ball is put in play. The statistic that tracks this is BABIP -- batting average on balls in play (removing home runs from the equation). Anyway, most pitchers are going to be around .290 to .300 in BABIP (the MLB average was .293 in 2012); if they're well above or below that figure in one season, they'll likely move toward that .300 figure the next.
Now, fly ball pitchers do generally allow a slightly lower BABIP than ground ball pitchers, and Weaver is an extreme fly ball pitcher, but he takes BABIP and gives it a severe kick in the groin. Amazingly, his BABIP has decreased five consecutive seasons:
Certainly, having a good outfield defense helps a pitcher like Weaver. The Angels' outfield defense was tremendous in 2012, which helps explain why Weaver's BABIP decreased -- and why he remained effective despite the lower strikeout. Using Defensive Runs Saved, here are the Angels' overall runs saved totals since 2007, with the primary outfielders listed from left field to right field with the top reserve:
2007: -24 (Garret Anderson 0, Gary Matthews -13, Vlad Guerrero -3, Reggie Willits -10)
2008: +5 (Anderson 0, Torii Hunter -4, Guerrero -7, Matthews -7)
2010: -24 (Rivera -12, Hunter -10, Abreu -11, Peter Bourjos +13)
2011: +4 (Vernon Wells -8, Bourjos +12, Hunter +9, Mike Trout +2)
2012: +45 (Wells +2, Trout +23, Hunter +15, Bourjos +9)
The 2013 outfield alignment of Trout, Bourjos and Hamilton could be even better than last year. Which is good news for Weaver -- and great news for the Angels. If Weaver gives them 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings, he should be a Cy Young contender again. And hitters will continue to wonder why they can't hit the guy.